Cactus League starting on time – with far fewer fans The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Cactus League starting on time – with far fewer fans

February 7th, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
Cactus League starting on time – with far fewer fans
Mesa
16

By Jim Walsh
Tribune Contributor

The Cactus League will come back to Mesa and the rest of Arizona within weeks – but fans will find it hardly recognizable.

Don’t expect the usual capacity crowd of more than 15,000 loyal Chicago Cubs fans at Mesa’s Sloan Park or kids clamoring for autographs as players take a leisurely stroll across the parking lot between the practice fields and Tempe Diablo Stadium.

These, and many other familiar scenes from Cactus League seasons past, will not be possible this year as officials try to strike a delicate balance between the return of spring training and preventing another disastrous spike in COVID-19.

With safety paramount on everyone’s minds, fans can expect to see seating limited at Cactus League Stadiums to about 25 percent of capacity, “pods” of small groups of people sitting at least 6 feet apart from each other, a mask requirement throughout the league and a prohibition against collecting autographs or watching routine workouts.

“I think the public and everyone needs to understand that public safety will not be compromised in the name of baseball,’’ Mesa Mayor John Giles said. “There will be baseball, but there will be strict protection.’’

He said this year, the Cactus League will join a long list of disappointments caused by COVID but that everyone will do their best to enjoy the season without endangering the public’s health.

“We built stadiums and relationships with the teams because we are in it for the long game,’’ Giles said. “We will look forward to wall-to-wall people next year.’’

The Cactus League, which supported Major League Baseball by requesting a delay in the season because of COVID-19, is now revving up for Opening Day Feb. 26 after the Major League Baseball Players Association rejected the proposal.

Justin Piper, general manager of Sloan Park, said the Cactus League parks will rely on MLB’s safety protocols that focus on masks and social distancing. He also said there will be small variations from park to park based upon their layouts.

“We feel pretty confident in our plan and have received city and state approval,’’ Piper said. “It’s going to be a different experience than what people saw in the past. We want to make sure we provide a fun, exciting day in a safe way.’’

Pods at Sloan Park will be limited to a maximum six people sitting together and each pod will be at least 6 feet apart, making it easier for ushers to enforce social distancing, he said.

Every effort will be made to avoid bottlenecks and lines, with only mobile tickets sold so that fans can download them to their cell phones, phasing out the ticket booths at least for this season. Concessions will be spread out, using Sloan’s wide concourse and plaza areas, he said.

“We are coming up with a full plan of social distancing,’’ he said. “We will be following CDC recommended social distancing in all areas of the ballpark.’’

While there will be no season tickets this year, season ticket holders will get the first priority to buy single game tickets on cubs.com or sloanpark.com.

Because the Cubs and other teams are limiting attendance to 25 percent of capacity to help achieve social distancing, Sloan’s maximum crowd is expected to drop from more than 15,000 to an estimated 3,500, Piper said.

Although the protocols represent a marked departure from the usual relaxed, intimate atmosphere at Cactus League games, at least fans who are willing to cooperate have an opportunity to watch live games in person for the first time since the 2020 Cactus League season was suddenly canceled about midway in March.

Pitchers and catchers are expected to arrive on Feb. 17. The 2021 season unveils on Feb. 27, when the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers will play the Cubs in the first game at Sloan Park on Feb. 27.

The Los Angeles Angels will matchup that same afternoon against the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale.

Other early East Valley games include the Chicago White Sox vs. the Angels on Feb. 28 at Diablo’s home opener and the Seattle Mariners vs. the Oakland Athletics at Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium.

Bridget Binsbacher, the Cactus League’s executive director and a Peoria City Council member, said the league would have preferred to see the season’s debut delayed to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, providing time for more fans to get vaccinated.

Although the league never demanded a certain length of delay, East Valley officials and numerous media reports said the ideal scenario would have been about a month.

MLB eventually offered to pay players for a 154-game regular season schedule instead of the usual 162-game season, and using the designated hitter in both leagues, as was the case in last year’s abbreviated 60-game season.

But the powerful Major League Baseball Players Association quickly crushed that proposal out of the park like a typical batting practice fastball grooved straight down the middle.

Players worried that more double-headers during the shortened season would result in more injuries and also said the offer came too late, after they had rented homes in Arizona and Florida for spring training, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported.

Tension between the owners and players has been high, with the collective bargaining agreement scheduled to expire at the end of this year’s World Series.

“We will be ready for any opportunity that presents itself,’’ Binsbacher said. “We’re concerned about health. It’s at the forefront of everything.’’

She said the league would work cooperatively with MLB on using the best safety protocols possible whenever the season begins.

“We are confident we can do it on the 27th or a month from the 27th,’’ Binsbacher said, before the players association rejected the delay.

In a prepared statement late last week, Binsbacher said, “The Cactus League is prepared to open spring training camps as scheduled. Each of the Cactus League’s eight host municipalities and the tribal community participated in a task force to ensure that our 10 spring training facilities will provide a safe environment for all involved. 

“Operating procedures are forthcoming and will depend entirely on health guidelines. Fans are advised to go to the Cactus League website at cactusleague.com/#navigation-locations for ticket details and protocols for attendees at individual ballparks.”

Teams appeared headed toward putting single-game tickets on sale soon, with the Arizona Diamondbacks offering subscribers to their newsletter a “pre-sale’’ opportunity last week.

“All of us are studying what everyone has done to have fans and how it works,’’ said Jerry Hall, manager of Diablo Stadium. “That might be a bonus, if we have fans. I think if people come to the games, they will follow the rules.’’

He said the Cactus League needs a uniform policy, so that the same rules are used in all stadiums and fans don’t insist they were allowed to not wear masks in another ballpark.

“All of us will have the same protocols. We will all be on the same page,’’ Hall said.

Diablo, the oldest and smallest of Cactus League stadiums, always has touted its intimate fan experience. Its capacity would shrink from 9,600 to about 2,000 or so.

“The fan experience will actually be quite nice. You can still sit with your family. You can still watch Major League Baseball,’’ Hall said.

But Steve Adams, president of the HoHoKams, said smaller crowds are bound to curtail his organization’s fundraising efforts for local charities, which include a lucrative 50-50 raffle, along with fees paid by the teams for the services of volunteers who work the games.

During good years, such as 2019 before COVID-19, a long schedule capped by a rare Cactus League appearance by the then World Champion Boston Red Sox allowed the HoHoKams to exceed a $500,000 goal for funds contributed to youth sports.

But when last season was abruptly cut short, the HoHoKams raised less than half of that, $225,000, for youth sports, Adams said.

“I think it will be something similar to what we did in 2020,’’ he said. “We’re definitely not going to have the jackpots we had in the past.’’

Adams said the HoHoKams are looking at the possibility of expanding the raffle online, but lack the television broadcasts that drive such sales for the Diamondbacks and the Arizona Coyotes hockey team.

“There is a love for spring training and baseball, but the goal is to support the community,’’ he said. “If our year is way down, we’ll probably do a direct mail drive.’’

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